Everest Coverage Continues …

A lot has been written about Everest’s darkest day, April 18, 2014, in which 16 sherpas died in an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall after a large serac collapsed. This tragedy seems to have unleashed a lot of heated issues and emotions that were roiling just under the surface, which explains why this deadly day continues to be discussed in the media.

Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic Elders attach prayer flags outside Phortse at an altar for Khumbila, the god of the Khumbu.
Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic
Elders attach prayer flags outside Phortse at an altar for Khumbila, the god of the Khumbu.

I added my own two cents to the discussion with my most recent Rock and Ice column, “Dead Sherpa Walking.” My take on the tragedy explores the question of whether it can be considered ethically responsible to continue guiding on the South Side of the mountain (the side with the Khumbu Icefall, which is where the majority of death occurs for the hired sherpa workers) when other options exist, whether that’s moving your commercial operation to the safer (but tougher) North Side of the mountain, or simply using helicopters to do a majority of the heavy lifting of establishing Camps 1 and 2 on the South Side.

“Dead Sherpa Walking” is out on the newsstands now (issue #222), so if you’re interested in reading my thoughts about this topic, please snatch up a copy and share your thoughts in the comments field below.

Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic Birds ride the wind as Lakpa Sherpa, a guide and expedition company owner, pauses for tea and a moment of reflection in 2013 among the peaks near Everest.
Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic
Birds ride the wind as Lakpa Sherpa, a guide and expedition company owner, pauses for tea and a moment of reflection in 2013 among the peaks near Everest.

NGM_nov_2014_cvrI was also interested to see that National Geographic has contributed some great reporting to this story. First, the November issue of National Geographic magazine contains an article by Chip Brown that paints an incredibly poignant, well-written recap of the tragedy and its aftermath. “Sorrow on the Mountain” falls in the tradition of other masterpieces of literary journalism. Bravo, Mr. Brown. All images are from the November issue. You can also see more images , and read Brown’s story, on the National Geographic website—I highly recommend it.

Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic Climbing Sherpas are part guide, part porter, part personal assistant, part coach, and part guardian.
Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic
Climbing Sherpas are part guide, part porter, part personal assistant, part coach, and part guardian.
Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic Da Nuru Sherpa coils rope at Camp II on Ama Dablam, perched like a spectacular bird’s nest at 19,600 feet.
Photo by Aaron Huey/National Geographic
Da Nuru Sherpa coils rope at Camp II on Ama Dablam, perched like a spectacular bird’s nest at 19,600 feet.

 

The Khumbu icefall creeps at an incredible rate of 3 feet per day. National Geographic has also put together a really fascinating graphic that uses satellite imagery and still photographs to pinpoint the source of the massive avalanche that killed 16 sherpas this year. Martin Gamache, the senior editor of cartography for NG, pieced together the evidence based on satellite imagery and still photographs taken this year.

Fateful Day At 6:45 a.m. on April 18, 2014, a massive section of ice calved off the hanging glacier on Mount Everest’s west shoulder and roared a thousand feet down into the upper Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 mountain workers—13 of them Sherpas and three from other Nepali ethnic groups—and injuring eight. It was the worst accident in the peak’s hundred-year climbing history. Credit: Martin Gamache, NGM Staff; 3D RealityMaps. Detail Photo (4/16/14): Andy Tyson. Sources: Andy Tyson, Alpine Ascents; Dave Morton, Adventure Consultants; Conrad Anker, The North Face; Richard Salisbury, Himalayan Database; Michael Ross, RER Energy
Fateful Day
At 6:45 a.m. on April 18, 2014, a massive section of ice calved off the hanging glacier on Mount Everest’s west shoulder and roared a thousand feet down into the upper Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 mountain workers—13 of them Sherpas and three from other Nepali ethnic groups—and injuring eight. It was the worst accident in the peak’s hundred-year climbing history.
Credit: Martin Gamache, NGM Staff; 3D RealityMaps. Detail Photo (4/16/14): Andy Tyson. Sources: Andy Tyson, Alpine Ascents; Dave Morton, Adventure Consultants; Conrad Anker, The North Face; Richard Salisbury, Himalayan Database; Michael Ross, RER Energy

I reached out to Gamache to ask him if he thinks the Khumbu Ice Fall is too risky to justify the trips through it? His answer reflected a lot of my personal feelings that I wrote about for Rock and Ice. Here’s his answer:

“I’m not sure if I’m qualified to answer that questions for others,” he responded. “Individual climbers  need to asses risk for themselves. The Khumbu has always been a dangerous place, but it has disproportionately killed young ethnic Sherpa and other porter men. I’m not sure how much more dangerous it is now, there has been no objective, quantitative, scientific analysis of risk from serac fall in the Khumbu so it’s hard to determine if it’s more dangerous now. Of course our perception of risk is high now in light of recent events, but human memory is short.  What needs to change is how that risk is managed, so that we have mechanisms in place to minimize risk  for everyone involved in climbing on the mountain.  Having a class of individual porters who bear the brunt of the risk  is inherently unethical. Proper risk assessment, monitoring, mitigation ( perhaps seasonal closures when seracs are too threatening, triggering  avalanches like we do for backcountry skiing), insurance and compensation should be in place for all who climb on the mountain. Once the cost for managing this risk is factored in, it may well be that we can no longer afford to climb Everest the way we do now. That is by having a group of poor, financially incentivized individuals, unfairly burdened with that risk, supporting a group of rich individuals spending a minimal amount of time exposed to those risks.”

Photo by Andy Tyson/National Geographic April 18, 2014 Rescuers in the Khumbu Icefall dig for survivors and bodies among mansion-size blocks of ice about three hours after the avalanche. Eleven of the 16 victims died at a single spot at upper left, where climbers are searching.
Photo by Andy Tyson/National Geographic
April 18, 2014 Rescuers in the Khumbu Icefall dig for survivors and bodies among mansion-size blocks of ice about three hours after the avalanche. Eleven of the 16 victims died at a single spot at upper left, where climbers are searching.

.What do you think? What changes should be made to commercial guiding on Everest in light of what we now know about the Khumbu Icefall?

  • Frankly its a tourist attraction so why not go all the way to full fledged eco tourism and allow helicopter transports of supplies, staff, Sherpas, guides and clients. Saving lost of lives and time. It seams like the Everest is and for some time will be an attraction rather than a mountain adventure. Real change will only come when a storm hits the mountain in a summit window and plus 20 western clients and their guides perish in a traffic jam or when a fixed rope breaks.